Exxon knew fossil fuels were causing climate change a long time ago


Think about 1977. If you’re even old enough to remember, that was a long, long time ago. It was 38 years ago, to be exact. I was a teenager working toward my GED in New Orleans — law school and my career as an environmental attorney was still ahead of me. The city’s NBA basketball team was still the Jazz, not the Pelicans. Jimmy Carter had just been elected president the year before, and the oil industry was booming, as evidenced by the large skyscrapers the titans of Big Oil were constructing downtown.

That was also the year that a top scientist for Exxon Corp., the precursor to ExxonMobil, the world’s largest oil company, shared some top-secret findings with major executives for the company:

At a meeting in Exxon Corporation’s headquarters, a senior company scientist named James F. Black addressed an audience of powerful oilmen. Speaking without a text as he flipped through detailed slides, Black delivered a sobering message: carbon dioxide from the world’s use of fossil fuels would warm the planet and could eventually endanger humanity.

“In the first place, there is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels,” Black told Exxon’s Management Committee, according to a written version he recorded later.

It was July 1977 when Exxon’s leaders received this blunt assessment, well before most of the world had heard of the looming climate crisis.

A year later, Black, a top technical expert in Exxon’s Research & Engineering division, took an updated version of his presentation to a broader audience. He warned Exxon scientists and managers that independent researchers estimated a doubling of the carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration in the atmosphere would increase average global temperatures by 2 to 3 degrees Celsius (4 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit), and as much as 10 degrees Celsius (18 degrees Fahrenheit) at the poles.  Rainfall might get heavier in some regions, and other places might turn to desert.

“Some countries would benefit but others would have their agricultural output reduced or destroyed,” Black said, in the written summary of his 1978 talk.

Remarkably, officials at Exxon took this information seriously at first. The company even formed its own in-house working group to more closely understand the problem of how this global warming was occurring and whether it could be reversed. According to remarkable, in-depth piece of reporting by InsideClimate News, the same outfit which won a Pulitzer Prize for its investigative journalism a couple of years ago, the company’s embrace of climate-change research lasted for nearly a decade — and then there was an abrupt change in course.

As those who follow environmental issues closely might already know, Exxon — which merged around the turn of the millennium with Mobil to become the energy behemoth it is today — has spent nearly three decades investing millions of dollars in the effort to deny that climate change is real. Its latter efforts didn’t alter the overwhelming consensus of the world’s climate scientists that the planet faces a grave risk from the effects of greenhouse gas pollution. But its work did sow enough doubt to influence America’s pro-business politicians — and thus stall any progress in the time when efforts to fight fossil-fuel pollution would have had more impact.

This, of course, is that way that Big Oil has operated for some time now. Indeed, during my first major environmental case around that same time frame — the late 1980s and early 1990s — we learned that large energy firms like Chevron had left a paper trail showing its engineers were well aware of the risks of radioactive pollution from the oil production process. Their initial response to that problem — just like Big Oil’s eventual answer to the news about fossil fuels and climate change — was to do nothing and hope it would disappear.

What a tragedy! Ironically, that president in 1977, Jimmy Carter, had a comprehensive plan to reduce America’s deep dependence on fossil fuels. His motivation was reducing the country’s reliance  on foreign sources, and not climate change, but it would have had the same effect. Indeed, other nations with similar economies to the United States have been more aggressive about converting to cleaner alternative sources. Even with a few, tentative positive steps coming from the Obama White House these days, it’s so very frustrating to know that we could have started 37 years earlier.

Read the explosive reporting on what Exxon knew from InsideClimate News: http://insideclimatenews.org/news/15092015/Exxons-own-research-confirmed-fossil-fuels-role-in-global-warming

Find out more about a lifetime of fighting Big Oil on the Gulf Coast in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on Americahttp://shop.benbellabooks.com/crude-justice

© Stuart H. Smith, LLC 2015 – All Rights Reserved

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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